The Quiet Volume is not a calming experience. It infers things about reading habits, then turns those internal habits inside out by commenting on them and making the reader—you—hyperconscious of them.
The performance piece, concocted by Ant Hampton & Tim Etchells (who are not present at the local performances, and do not need to be) would play very differently in the reading room of, say, the New Haven Free Public Library, which is more of a community gathering space, and where sott0 voce conversations, chess matches and the sounds of books being shifted around on open stacks are commonplace. There’s an austerity to the Beinecke which pervades anything you do there, whether it’s a Dada theater recreation I saw there over 20 years ago or a reception for cartoonist Garry Trudeau as was held there a couple years back or a classical choral concert or just wandering its glass-case displays, which is how most of us non-Yalies know the place.
The concept of using the Beinecke as something other than a place to store rare books is not unusual. The Quiet Volume, however, doesn’t just use the space as an intriguing environment for an event which might benefit from its rigidly calming persona. The piece actively comments on the act of reading in a public area.
The hour-long piece is designed for an audience of two people, sitting side-by-side at a table in Beinecke’s lower-level reading room. These two people are active participants in an interactive performance that is geared to the calm and solitude of a library. They are guided through a series of readings, thought processes and gestures by cues either given to them audibly via headphones or through written prompts contained in the books and papers on the table. The arrangement is immaculate. Rules must be observed that are as severe as any which the Beinecke itself demands of Reading Room occupants. Quietness, naturally. But also: no foreign objects are allowed on the table, just the setting of three books and a notebook provided for you. You must be 16 or older to attend. The nature of the performance does not allow you leeway to get up, move about, stop the recording, converse with your fellow audience member or otherwise interrupt the sequence of events.
I attended The Quiet Volume with a friend, so we were able to compare notes following our mutual “performance.” The actions decreed by the disembodied voice in the headphones are staggered so that the two audience members do some similar things, but at different times. You are directed to read a prepared text in a notebook, then passages from published volumes by Kazuo Ishiguro, Agota Kristof and José Saramago. The audio narrative occasionally messes with your head by paraphrasing or actively rewriting the passages which you are in the process of reading from the books.
I’m uncomfortable being told what to do for too long a time, and I felt myself getting actively annoyed during parts of The Quiet Volume. I’m not new to performance pieces which involve pre-recorded directives—the Festival of Arts & Ideas has hosted a few over the years, and I remember when such concepts were all the rage back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s at the dawn of personal listening devices and cell phones.
I realize my own lack of patience with the procedure may not be the norm for The Quiet Volume’s two-at-a-time crowds. I studied a lot of Structuralism and other literary theories in my youth, about multiplicities of texts and The Art of Seeing and the essence of reading and comprehension, etc. The Quiet Volume makes some useful observations, and asks some provocative questions. But I think it goes a little far afield when it starts drawing you into shared themes in the books on that table. The themes include physical wounds and scarred psyches. Rewarding, but it seemed like the show had shifted from form to content without warning or reason. In a directed reading room situation, such randomness is jarring.
The Quiet Volume is best when it makes you aware of what you’re doing, where you’re doing it, and who’s around you. The directives to show the person seated next to you what you’re reading are instructive in such a gentle, meaningful manner. This is a piece that demands, and deserves concentration on par with the most intensive study sessions, but instead of feeding your mind it reflects it.
When this subtle, textual show really gets on the same page with you and your tablemate, it can speak volumes about human nature, intellectual behavior and the rewards of a good book. When it loses its place, there’s no way to bookmark it and pick up later.